BROOKLYN, New York -- I recently visited Denver's Center for Empowered Living and Learning, ominously referred to as "The CELL," to see their inaugural exhibit on international terrorism. The museum probably told me more about the politics of fear and the construction of threats than it did about actual terrorism, so I thought I would share some information and insights from my visit.
Titled "Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: Understanding the Threat of Terrorism," the implied clause to follow the exhibit's name is "could be killed by terrorists," and they make every effort to convince you not only that terrorists are everywhere, but they all are part of a vast, sinister network who's only object is to kill innocent people. The museum was not as crazy as I had hoped, but it was as uninformed as I had feared.
The CELL opened last fall as part of Denver's Mizel Museum, which is dedicated to Jewish history and culture. The museum was founded by Larry Mizel, a real estate developer who is also the chairman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The museum claims to be non-partisan, and despite Mizel's history as a major Republican contributor, I was quite surprised to see not a single image or even mention of President Bush anywhere in the museum. There was a lot of information on attacks in Israel, but considering the number of terrorist attacks that have been inflicted on that beseiged country, this was probably appropriate (it was not mentioned anywhere that the first terrorist groups in historic Palestine were in fact Jewish, though mention of this fact would be a lot to expect from any museum, regardless of its politics.) The museum's slant goes beyond partisanship - the rhetoric of terrorism and fear transcends party lines.
The museum strives to make the visitor identify with the victims of terrorism. When you purchase your ticket, they give you a card for their "Shattered Lives" exhibit. At three points in the museum, there are kiosks where you insert the card, and you are given information on a particular victim of terrorism, very similar to the approach used at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. At the first kiosk, you are told about the person's biography and background - my victim was Yanis Kanidis, a resident of Belsan, Russia. The second station tells you about the circumstances of their encounter with terrorism - there was a brief description of the attack on the Beslan school in 2004, and the terrible conditions the hostages were held in. Finally, like at the Holocaust Museum, you are told whether your person lived or died - Mr. Kanidis was killed by the terrorists while attempting to get other hostages out of the school, for which he posthumously received the medal for the Protection of Human Rights by the Russian government.
Encouraging visitors to identify with people who's lives have been affected by terrorism is a somewhat noble goal of the museum, but another exhibit tries to accomplish this in a far more heavy-handed fashion. Called "Hitting Home," when you enter the room halfway through the museum, you are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling screens depicting crowds of people mulling around Denver's Civic Center and 16th Street Mall. The screens are then filled with explosions and fireballs and the sounds of sirens and anguished cries (pregnant women are encouraged to avoid this portion of the museum). This is the type of thing one would expect from a Tom Tancredo campaign ad, not an educational museum.
The main problem with the museum is that their definition of terrorism is at once too broad and too narrow. The museum tries to draw links between all terrorist groups across the world, which is similar to the Cold War efforts to link all leftists to an international communist conspiracy. It is even more absurd than that, however, because terrorism is not an ideology, it is a tactic. It is employed by state and stateless actors, by the downtrodden and poor and by the rich and powerful, by the left and by the right. The CELL explains that there is no universally-accepted definition of terrorism, which they see as problematic. But will this make terrorism any less ambiguous? Is the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden in World War II, or the shelling of Sarajevo, all of which specifically targeted civilians with the intent of inciting mass terror, much different that setting off a suicide bomb in a crowded Baghdad market? Many countries are labeled "terrorist states," but it is without dispute that the United States has provided both material and moral support to groups around the world that are unequivocally terrorists. Yet somehow we justify supporting the Contras in Nicaragua or insurgent groups in Iran. If these issues are black and white, and terrorism is morally wrong, then there can be no "freedom fighters" who set off bombs in shopping malls or use death squads to execute civilians.
America's struggle with terrorism has revealed that it is a complicated, messy business that makes it difficult at times to draw bright lines between good and evil in this so-called war. We have sacrificed many of our own moral principles in pursuit of the GWOT, and we are left with little to show for it. Despite our efforts to weaken terrorist organizations, people around the world, regardless of their ideology, are no less willing to murder and maim civilians to achieve their political goals. There are many valid question to be asked about the nature of terrorism and the use of violence to achieve political ends, but they remain largely unexplored in this museum. Saying that Timothy McVeigh, Hezbollah, and the Earth Liberation Front are all cut from the same cloth and should be treated the same obscures more than it illuminates.
Not Just Homeland, Hometown Security
I recently discovered another ad from Tom Tancredo's failed presidential bid, and it is even more crazy and racist, but it bears another similarity to the CELL. Tancredo says he wants to deport "those who don't belong," a wonderfully ambiguous phrase that is simply a code for racism and xenophobia. The CELL encourages visitors to be diligent in the fight against terrorism and offers tips and directions for the average citizen. These include looking out for people who "don't belong in the workplace, neighborhood, business establishment or anywhere else." You should also look out for people who might be rehearsing for committing an act of terrorism, or it could be for The Amazing Race, as Liz Lemon learned. Also look out for people who are conducting surveillance, which may include "use of cameras, note taking, drawing diagrams, annotating maps or using binoculars." Apparently, terrorism is an activity remarkably similar to birdwatching.
It would be far more useful if they included a poster like this one I saw at a zoo in Russia. It doesn't just tell you how to spot a terrorist, but what to do should you be held hostage. The most important thing is to avoid being killed by the police when they storm the building.
Making Terrorism Black and White
This effort to paint all terrorists with the same brush has led to a number of factual inaccuracies throughout the museum. Even the basic facts of terrorist attacks can often be disputed, but the CELL does not look at any accounts with a critical eye, choosing instead to give the visitor a clear-cut version of events. Two examples of this were particularly striking.
Throughout the first exhibit of the museum, there are television monitors that display information about various terrorist attacks that have taken place in recent years, including the location, the number of casualties, and the culprits. The segments are produced like news reports to give them an air of objectivity. One of the featured incidents was the hostage taking at a Moscow theater in 2002 by Chechen separatists. The attack resulted in the deaths of 129 hostages, though not a single one was killed by a terrorist - all of the hostages died as a result of a toxic nerve gas that Russian security services pumped into the building. The plan worked in rendering everyone inside unconscious, but there was not sufficient medical staff or equipment on hand to deal with the 700 affected people, and most of the victims died after being carried out of the building and left lying in buses and trucks, waiting to be revived at a hospital. It should also be noted that Russian special forces then summarily executed the 40 hostage takers while they lay unconscious inside the theater, when they could have easily been removed, arrested and tried for their crimes. None of this was mentioned in the CELL's report.
Mentioned in one of the exhibits was an event that took place on the eve of the Beijing Olympics last year, when reports came out of China of an attack by Uighur extremists on a police station in the western Chinese city of Kashgar. The official account stated that men armed with machetes and home-made explosives killed 16 officers, which is exactly how the event was recounted in the museum exhibit. However, pictures of the event taken by American tourists - and published in this article from the New York Times - show that the attack was far more complicated than insurgents attacking police. The attackers were dressed in police uniforms, and it is completely unclear who were the attackers and the targets in these photos. Clearly there are important details that the Chinese government either fabricated or left out, but the unambiguous official account is passed along to CELL visitors.
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